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Use Research Techniques to Teach Students the Art and Science of Interviewing

Ranging from hip-hop models to the Volkswagen scandal, Dr. Payal Sharma parlays her research knowledge into teaching tools for her business students.

Educator

Payal Sharma, PhD

Assistant Professor of Management, University of Nevada, Las Vegas

PhD in Organizational Behavior, MA in Organizational Management, MA in Higher Education, BA in Anthropology, BA in History

Many professors struggle to juggle the dual roles of researcher and educator. Others notice that their school focuses heavily on one domain or the other, with students caught in the middle. Payal Sharma, PhD, an assistant professor of management at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that her philosophy is to find ways to merge the two. “This was top of mind for me when I moved from Wharton to UNLV,” she says. “I wanted to make management research palatable to the students here, who might have had less exposure to it.”

To that end, her Leadership and Managerial Skills undergraduate course, taught in the Lee Business School, features a deep discussion of her own research with students. It helps that one of Sharma’s areas of interest meshes nicely with the average college student’s: She studies women who model in rap and hip-hop music videos, and the power dynamics between them and others on video sets, in the context of workplace mistreatment. “When instructors find what motivates them, it translates into what motivates the students,” she says. “This has helped me engage my classes, in that most of my students listen to hip-hop and rap music and want to talk in the classroom about how the industry operates.”

Sharma has found that using her hip-hop research as a starting point enables her to make coursework more relevant to students, increase their intellectual engagement, and get them excited about the use of qualitative methods she employs for a leadership development team project.

Below, Sharma explains how she uses her own research skills and experiences to teach her students how to be good interviewers to collect data for the project, which involves fieldwork and interfacing with leaders in the local community. This, she points out, will serve the students well in any industry or role, whether they become leaders in their own right, researchers, educators, or a combination of these.

See resources shared by Payal Sharma, PhD

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Context

“Students need to step back and understand how to curate relationships and cultivate trust with others. They have to appreciate the ‘journey’ of an interview and walk down that path with other people, so that those people will open up to them.”

— Payal Sharma, PhD

Course: MGT 471 Leadership and Managerial Skills

Course description: This course focuses on the skills of effective leaders and managers. Using a range of classic and contemporary theoretical and applied perspectives, the course uncovers a variety of lessons learned regarding: (1) leadership emergence in organizational settings; (2) effective leadership, including motivating employees, managing diversity and change; and (3) challenges in the contemporary business landscape, such as leading ethically. These lessons are overlapping and will reflect the importance of mastering interpersonal skills, such as building relationships and managing communication, which are needed to thrive in today’s organizations. The course further incorporates experiential exercises, guest speakers, and fieldwork – hence will facilitate students’ professional and personal development and is designed to be complementary to other courses offered in the department.

Sharma’s tips for helping students create an interview guide when conducting fieldwork

Many of Sharma’s students think they know how to conduct an interview because they have been interviewed when job searching—after all, her Leadership and Managerial Skills course is 400-level (i.e., taught for juniors and seniors who are management majors). What she has found, though, is that students may be better at being an interviewee than an interviewer. To help them build the skill set needed for the latter, and which corresponds to skills they will need as rising or current leaders, she instructs them on how to develop an interview guide—mirroring the study design of her own research. Here, she shares some of her top tips:

Encourage practice to help draw out students’ emerging skills

Sharma leads a training session in class on how to come up with the interview questions, which are centered around a research question of students’ choosing and that pertains to their career goals and/or interests. Sharma has students work in groups of three to develop their interview guide for talking with junior, mid-level, and senior leaders. After the guide is complete and approved, each group member interviews two leaders of their choosing from the community, with whom they have connections. “For example, one of my students recently interviewed the president of the casino property here in Las Vegas where he is employed,” Sharma says. “The president was not only gracious in granting the student time out of her busy schedule, but this helped put the student front and center in her mind, and in a favorable light, as an engaged member of the organization.”

Prior to their fieldwork, she requires students to conduct a practice interview using the questions with a familiar person, such as a relative, friend, current manager, or significant other. This helps the students feel more comfortable and less nervous when later interviewing their actual informants—and practice logistics, such as recording the interview for later transcripts. Students often gain insights from the practice interviews, including identifying confusing wording in their questions, improving the flow of the guide, understanding how to logically order what they ask, and learning to help informants feel at ease.

As part of the in-class training, Sharma also leads role-plays in which she assumes the part of informants across a range of challenging communication styles (and a student plays the part of an interviewer in each scenario). Her roles include an informant who is pressed for time and unimpressed with students’ apparent novice interview skills, an informant who is interpersonally pleasant but only provides one-word answers to the questions posed, and an informant who is verbose but does not directly answer the questions asked.

Show students that an interview is a conversation, not a court case

Students often unintentionally write interview questions that are too literal, direct, or explicit—almost as though they are a trial lawyer who is proverbially “digging for dirt.” Such an approach can be off-putting with a research participant (or in casual conversation). “In my hip-hop project, I’m interested in how the interviewees interact with other people on the set,” she explains. “But it would be inappropriate, and presumptuous, to ask, ‘Did you hook up with Drake last weekend?’” Instead, Sharma discusses how to approach sensitive topics in a softer, more respectful manner. This also opens the door for follow-up questions, which can help get to the details the interviewer is actually seeking.

Students quickly learn how important word choice can be, Sharma adds. As they create their interview guides, they realize that how the phrasing of their questions will have a great impact on the success or failure of an interview in terms of collecting rich data, as well as leaving a positive impression in the informants’ minds. “You can’t walk up to someone and say, ‘Who is an unethical leader in your organization?’” Sharma tells them. This would be too abrupt, which can put people on guard, causing them not to answer or not to answer honestly. Such learning and skill development for the students translates to how leaders approach difficult conversations with employees—instead of being viewed as too direct or abrasive, leaders can proactively manage harder dialogue more productively.

See the sidebar, “Sharma’s Sample Interview Guide,” for an example of a case and potential interview questions that relate to it.

Sharma’s Sample Interview Guide

Research question: “How, if at all, do organizations encourage ethical leadership in their work settings?”

In one week of her course, Sharma teaches on the topic of ethical leadership, and students read a case study on the emissions scandal at Volkswagen. Students often find this topic and case so engaging that they want to explore the intersection of leadership and ethics in their team projects. In support of this, Sharma encourages them to think systematically and consider asking interview questions from individual (e.g., apples), organizational (e.g., barrels), and industry (e.g., orchard) level perspectives that can help inform their research question.

Sample interview questions could include:

  1. Please tell me the first word that comes to mind for the following: (1) leader (2) follower (3) ethical (4) power (5) culture.
  2. Who is an ethical leader in your organization? Follow-up: What does that person do that makes them an ethical leader? Follow-up: To what extent do you think your organization promotes ethical leadership? Can you give me some examples?
  3. Conversely, to help my understanding of leadership and ethics, can you describe a time when you observed or experienced unethical leadership from others around you? As a reminder, please feel free to not mention names or other identifying details. Follow-up: What, if anything, do you think your organization could have done to prevent this situation from happening?
  4. Is there anything else that you think would be helpful for me to know that I might not have asked?
Share your resources to help students understand interview content and structure

Sharma offers this general list of instructions as a starting point:

  1. Warm up the interviewee by talking about friendly (i.e., noncontroversial) and easy-to-grasp topics. More cognitively complex or sensitive questions can come later on in the interview, after a positive rapport has been established.
  2. Introduce the topic of interest with a positively valenced question, which can help loosen people up and get them thinking—for example, “What, if anything, do you find motivating about your work/job?” Wait until the vibe is right, then switch tracks and talk about the flip side of the issue (“What, if anything, do you not find motivating about your work/job?”). Remind informants that they do not need to use real names or other identifying details, and that their answers will be kept anonymous. Sharma wants students to learn to sense this sensitive dynamic—a skill she says comes with practice and observation.
  3. Use follow-up questions or probes to dig deeper. Go easy, Sharma tells her students. “You want your informants to keep speaking freely.” Examples include, “Can you tell me more about that?” or “What would be an example?” or “I’m hoping to really ‘see’ what you are describing. Can you walk me through that in more detail?”
  4. End the interview on a positive note. Sharma reminds students to engage in professional and positive conduct at all times, which includes concluding the interview by thanking informants for their time and help. “In today’s busy society, and given how fast-paced and full our schedules are, time is the greatest gift we can give each other—where we are really present.” Students should also tell informants that they are available for any follow-up after the interview is over. Finally, Sharma encourages students to send each informant a handwritten thank-you card. “It seems like no one writes actual cards anymore, so this approach helps students stand out in our virtual-everything world.” Particularly if students hope to keep in touch with their informants as potential career mentors and/or when job searching down the line, it’s important to maintain the relationship in meaningful ways, Sharma tells them.

Whether or not her students ultimately go on to do research of their own, Sharma has given them some deeper insights into the nuances of interviewing and communication skills needed by leaders, including the ethics of how to approach fieldwork.

Resources

“Volkswagen’s Emissions Scandal: How Could It Happen?”

https://store.hbr.org/product/volkswagen-s-emissions-scandal-how-could-it-happen/IN1465

“Volkswagen: The Scandal Explained”

http://www.bbc.com/news/business-34324772

Interview tips

https://dism.ssri.duke.edu/survey-help/tipsheets/tipsheet-elite-interviews

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